Angels in America – The Theatrical Version from NT Live

It has been quite a while since I’ve posted anything and I wanted to return with a bang. No more slashing of terrible movies (because I’ve seen quite a few bad ones (*cough* Transformers, The Shack, The House, Free Fire and recently Baby Driver). No more praising of gorgeous ones (*cough* Dunkirk will be added to Movies that made me cry). Instead I will talk about a theatrical performance from NT Live which was shown in two parts:
Angels in America Part One: Millennium Approaches
Angels in America Part Two: Perestroika

When you hear Gay Fantasia, what springs to your mind? Maybe a lovely unicorn land filled with m&ms and gorgeous bodies touching. Some Colour, some glamour, some drama!

Some cheating, some love-making, some new friends, some old friends.

Maybe a marriage and a breakup.

Well, it wasn’t far off 🙂

The story that unfolded before my eyes in the nearly 8h of runtime left me shaken and hungry for more. While at first I thought that maybe I had bitten a bit of a too bigger slice of cake after arriving home near midnight on a work night, I found myself thinking that it was time well spent and I could not stop talking about the show at work and to my friends.

But explaining it to others was a bit difficult. “Hey, you wanna hear a story about the AIDS epidemic in the 80’s and how it affected the life of both young and old homosexuals, how hard it was to come out of the closet and how strong was the desire to keep a sense of normality going, the struggle of appearing Normal when sadness would cover every gesture and both partners would be unhappy.” Top that with “And oh, yeah, an Angel appears from the heavens to Prior – and we don’t know whether he’s hallucinating or he’s actually seeing these visions, whether he is going through a purifying experience that turn him into a prophet or maybe his brain cells are affected by the spreading disease. And the Angel has sex with him and with another woman as Angels exist in a state of orgasmic being and pleasure and making love are part of their daily dull, uncreative lives.”

OK, I might have lost you too.

From the beginning. A bit of backstory

What you didn’t know about the AIDS epidemic in America in the 80’s

  • “AIDS—even its name is deceptive.” Poster from the AIDS Resource Center. @SmithsonianMag

    HIV is a virus that attacks the immune system. If untreated, a person’s immune system will eventually be completely destroyed.

  • AIDS refers to a set of symptoms and illnesses that occur at the very final stage of HIV infection.
  • As HIV destroys more CD4 cells and makes more copies of itself, it gradually breaks down a person’s immune system. This means someone living with HIV, who is not receiving treatment, will find it harder and harder to fight off infections and diseases.If HIV is left untreated, it may take up to 10 or 15 years for the immune system to be so severely damaged it can no longer defend itself at all. However, the speed HIV progresses will vary depending on age, health and background.

630,000 to 897,000 adults and adolescents in the United States were living with HIV infection as of January 1993, including 107,000 to 150,000 women. The estimated incidence of HIV infection declined markedly over time among white males, especially those older than 30 years.

Gays are all about sex, dancing leads to sex, and sex leads to AIDS, so why are you crazy homos still dancing and, yknow, being all gay?”

Not knowing how it spread, people in the 1980s worried that they’d get sick from holding hands or catch the disease from a public toilet seat. There were no tests and no real treatments. The disease struck so many young men so quickly, and it seemed to target the gay community, so much that its first name was gay-related immune deficiency. Some just called it “gay cancer.”

The posters fed on people’s inability to understand how AIDS actually spread. It didn’t really ever mention ways to prevent the spread of HIV,” Brier says. “Fear-mongering posters don’t talk about condoms, they don’t talk about clean needles, they don’t talk about ways to be healthy. They don’t have the solutions in them, they just have the fear.”
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Angels in America Cast

The cast was gorgeous.

Andrew Garfield played Prior Walter (do you remember him from Amazing Spiderman and Silence?) He was a glorious and extremely extroverted Queen who just found out he got infected with AIDS and was looking at his impending death which was coming towards him with the light fluttering of angel wings.

James McArdle played Louis Ironson (I haven’t seen any of his prior work but it looks pretty impressive!). He played a Jewish bon-bon, with a mouth that would not stop talking and a body that would not stop moving – he’s probably the catalyst that brings all the characters out of their normal places.  Louis’ moral code is self-centered and self-absorbed. He abandons Prior in his hour of need and I do understand him. Most of the partners of people suffering from terminal diseases have flirted with the idea of abandonment, but Louis, he actually went and did it. He regrets it afterwards and tries to go back to Prior but in his wake there is a broken heart of another man who just happened to fall in love with the wrong person.

The love triangle is fantastic. Or should I call it a square? As Joseph is married.

Denise Gough plays Harper Pitt. I absolutely loved her honest performance!

She is a Jack Mormon based on her own self description: a Mormon woman who has abandoned her ways and is afraid to break away from her imaginary world, probably because the real life offers her so little in return. She’s married to Joseph in a pretend marriage. They have sex but he’s always closing his eyes real tight when they are doing it and taking it as a chore. So she takes some pills – some Valium to dull the edge, then some more. Until she starts having vivid fantasies and meets another lost soul – Prior.

Harper Pitt: I burned dinner.

Joe Pitt: I’m sorry.

Harper Pitt: Not my dinner, my dinner was fine. Your dinner. I put it back in the oven and turned everything up as high as it could go and I watched ’til it burned black. It’s still hot, very hot, want it?

Joe Pitt: You didn’t have to do that.

Harper Pitt: I know, it just seemed like the kinda thing a mentally-deranged sex-starved pill-popping housewife would do.

Russel Tovey – he played Joseph Pitt, Hannah’s husband. I think I liked Joseph the least when the play started but by the end of it, he was the top ranking one. His character arc is out of this world! From a closeted, insecure, indecisive gay accountant he goes through a life-changing series of events. He leaves his wife to pursue his true love, he comes out to his mother and he bears his soul out in front of Louis (that’s who his lover is) only to be rejected in the most brutal way when Louis wants to get back with Prior. I haven’t been moved like this in a while. Hats down, Mr Tovey. And PS: that Full Monty moment was totally worth it!

Joseph is a Mormon. In a 2008 interview, Tony Kushner said that the idea to entwine Mormonism into the plot of “Angels in America” started when he saw some young, ignored Mormon missionaries near his home in Brooklyn: “There were these Mormon missionaries that I used to see at my subway stop, in Carroll Gardens, around 1983. One of them was, I thought, kind of hot. They were always there in the morning, in front of a bunch of people who could have cared less about the Book of Mormon. And I was kind of touched by that.”

As the play continues, we see the evolution of Prior’s disease and the increasing despair as no drugs are available or are available but very expensive. The fact that the treatment was combined with placebo pills and you did not know which pills you were getting made it ten times worse. You can see the number of black patches increasing on Prior’s skin, his pallor increases and he suffers from visions and fevers.

Left alone as his boyfriend left him for the sexy accountant, he faces the most difficult moments in pure loneliness. It’s no wonder he meets Harper- a kindred soul – she has been abandoned too, left alone with her solitude. The two connect in his fever dreams and her valium-induced hallucinations. They find solace and a new meaning in the life they have been given.

I don’t understand why I’m not dead. When your heart breaks, you should die.

A bit of help comes from Joseph’s mother (played by Susan Brown), who, upon hearing of her son’s gayness, sells her house and goes to the city to be with him.

She ends up helping Harper through her depression, watching over her while working with the dolls in the museum. There are some emotional moments as mother and son try to reunite but they fall apart when he refuses to return to his marital home and be with his wife and abandon his new found freedom. One stormy night, she meets Prior and after delivering him to the hospital unit, she experiences Prior’s vision and also has sex with the horny angel. I had to o.O at that as the scene was quite intense. Now it’s pretty clear it’s not just in Prior’s head, he is actually a prophet who has been sent a prophecy. But Prior, like Jonah (remember the whale?), refuses to accept the prophecy.

When Prior asks Hannah for advice on how to reject his calling to prophecy, she tells him that he should wrestle the angel and tell her, “l will not let thee go except thou bless me.” Hannah is referring to Genesis 32:25-33, the story from the Torah in which an angel wrestled Jacob, who likewise refused to release the angel until he got a blessing from him. This is the same bible story to which Joe refers earlier in the film when he tells Harper about the picture of a beautiful man that he often looked at as a child, and about which he still dreams.

Through all of his trials, Prior comes out a little better. He is nursed back to health (or a form of health) and the experimental drugs gave him a few more years to live and a way to keep the symptoms under control.

When Prior tells Louis about their cat running away, he says in French: “Le chat, elle ne reviendra jamais, jamais,” which means: “The cat, she will never, never return.”

Nathan Stewart-Jarrett plays Belize – Prior’s ex and best friend – also a nurse in the hospital. He’s flamboyant and true to his friend. He’s the one who’s there when Prior needs him and even goes to see Louis’ new boyfriend in a trip that any girl has done at least once with her bff. He shuts down Louis’s tirade and I must say – it was pretty well done. Without offending, he made it clear that Louis was slightly racist.

 I hate America, Louis. I hate this country. Nothing but a bunch of big ideas and stories and people dying, and then people like you. The white cracker who wrote the National Anthem knew what he was doing. He set the word free to a note so high nobody could reach it. That was deliberate. Nothing on Earth sounds less like freedom to me. You come with me to Room 1013 over at the hospital and I’ll show you America. Terminal, crazy, and mean. I live in America, Louis. I don’t have to love it.

Just because you have an opinion, does not mean that everybody else shares it

Belize is also the one that links the other subplots together. He nurses Joseph’s boss – who is another closeted gay dying of AIDS.

Nathan Lane plays Roy Cohn – a guy with balls and a laugh to match his determined self. I could not help smiling everytime I saw him on stage. He has a presence about him that makes him hard to forget. He is representative of the males of middle age in an era where being Gay in a position of power was unheard of. In order to hide his disease, he convinces his doctor to put on his paperwork that he had Liver Cancer. It’s only by meeting Belize that he finds out what Chemoterapy would do to his already dwindling Immune System and he also pulls the strings to get a lifetime supply of the “good pills” for AIDS. He still dies – and has a good laugh while doing it – being visited in his final hours by his (dead) sister Ethel who shares a Jewish mourning song before leaving.

The prayer that Belize asks Louis to recite (and which Louis completes with Ethel’s help) is the Mourner’s Kaddish, one of the central prayers of Judaism. It is recited in memory of the recently deceased, at funerals, on the anniversary of a deceased loved one’s death, and as a part of the standard Jewish religious service. The word “Kaddish” means “sanctification,” and the prayer is entirely made up of praises for God; there is no mention of death anywhere in it. Parts of the prayer are inspired by passages from the books of Ezekiel and Daniel. Though most prayers in Jewish liturgy are in Hebrew, the Kaddish is actually in Aramaic.

The end is pretty epic – I will not spoil too many things – but there is something to be noticed:

When Prior talks about the Bethesda Fountain, he points across the Central Park Lake and mentions some trees that turn yellow in autumn. Those trees are part of a section of the park called “The Ramble,” which is the setting for Louis’ aborted sexual encounter with a stranger (also played by Justin Kirk) earlier in the film. The Ramble is also where Joe goes to watch other men before he knows Louis, and it is included in the list of popular 1970s and early ’80s-era New York City-area locations for public gay sex that Louis recounts to Joe while they are walking on the beach.

This angel. She’s my favorite angel. I like them best when they’re statuary. They commemorate death but suggest a world without dying. They are made of the heaviest things on earth, stone and iron, they weigh tons but they’re winged, they are engines and instruments of flight. 

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Written by theFerkel

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